While advanced automation has helped to vastly streamline industrial production in past years, RFID asset-tracking systems have done the same with inventory management and logistics. Here’s how to deploy one successfully.
Today’s factories and supply chains are much more efficient than they were even a decade ago. Advanced automation is one reason; another is radio frequency identification (RFID). RFID has helped manufacturers, their suppliers, and the logistics companies serving them both to improve how they track their various physical assets, whether feeder-stock inventories, work-in-progress, finished goods, or goods-in-transit. They also use RFID to track tools and equipment. With RFID, companies can obtain precise, up-to-the-minute information about the locations and movements of their assets. The more accurately a business knows the whereabouts and status of its assets, the more it can maximize their utilization and return on the capital invested in them.
The Six Steps to Successful RFID Asset Tracking
Although RFID is used in a wide variety of applications, one of the most common is asset tracking. To deploy such a system, it is critical to plan and develop the required technological infrastructure. One also needs to determine the best way to integrate RFID data into the existing data management system. That process requires business rules that dictate how the RFID data must be used. Once the system has been deployed, both it and its associated business processes need to be continuously refined to optimize the value of RFID asset data.
While implementing an RFID-based asset management system requires a significant investment of money, time, and effort, the value of a carefully planned one may far outweigh its costs. The following steps will help you ensure a successful RFID asset-tracking system implementation in your business:
- Business case development and prioritization
- Business process and workflow mapping
- Site assessment
- Architecture development and component sourcing
- Installation, tuning, and testing
- Communications and training
1. Business case development and prioritization
To maximize the benefits from deploying an RFID system, identify which of the company’s existing processes the system may improve, as well as the potential value of these improvements. Once this is done, you can determine whether an investment in RFID is justified and plan its implementation effectively.
Assuming the benefits will justify the RFID investment, you should then prioritize the application of the technology. Try not to tag and track everything, tempting as that might be; rather, start small. Target the most problematic assets for tracking. Examples include ones that are of high value and subject to theft or loss, ones that take a lot of time and effort to track, or ones that are subject to a lot of tracking errors.
One important consideration at this stage is finding and hiring a qualified RFID systems integrator. Most companies do not have the in-house resources to expertly plan, design, engineer, install, and commission a RFID asset-tracking system. The investment in outside experience and expertise will pay for itself in faster and less risky deployments. (The Siemens Solution Partner Network can help you find qualified candidates.) The successful candidate can help you with the following steps.
2. Business process and workflow mapping
After determining the target application for your RFID system, the next step is to carefully examine and map out every step in the process. Determine what asset item is to be tracked, its movements through your facility, and what organizational functions will have a stake in knowing its status and whereabouts. Additionally, determine who will be the system’s users and who will own the data.
This stage in an RFID system implementation is an excellent opportunity to find ways to streamline a process and remove outdated, low-value steps, especially manual ones involving paperwork. It is also a chance to apply standardized business processes where needed.
As with automation, companies frequently fail to adequately understand the processes that underlie a problem they are trying to solve. Later they learn that applying technology didn’t fix the problem, despite the money, time, and effort expended.
3. Site assessment
A thorough site assessment has three goals:
- To understand the context of where the solution will be deployed.
- To gather the information needed to define the deployment requirements.
- To predict the performance of the RFID solution in meeting those requirements.
Wherever you plan to install RFID, it’s important to survey the site’s existing RF “landscape.” Interference from short-range radios, cordless phones, and other RF sources can dramatically and negatively affect RFID system performance. Keep in mind that interference can come from behind walls, around corners, and through ceilings.
Due to their reflectivity, metal fixtures and shelving that are especially typical of warehouse environments can affect RF engineering. Some sites may also have specific mechanical and environmental requirements that will impact the project. Will there be vibration? Will harsh chemicals or temperature extremes affect RFID tags or readers? What is the potential for normal operations to damage the equipment?
Draft a floor plan that shows the locations of all fixtures, shelving, and other fixed objects. Determine the workflow through each area of a facility that will be subject to the RFID deployment. Will fork lifts, pallet lifts, or pallet scissor lifts be used? Other vehicles? What paths will they take? It is a good idea to photograph and document the environment from multiple angles and tie those views into the floor plan, if not to use them to create elevation diagrams.
A careful evaluation and documentation of the RF environment by a site survey early in an implementation is critically important to guiding equipment selection and installation. It also will help set realistic performance expectations among the various stakeholders of an RFID system, especially the workers who will have to use it and the management executives who will have authorized the investment in it.
4. Architecture development and component sourcing
After conducting the preceding steps, various requirements of the RFID system’s architecture will have asserted themselves: what assets need tracking, where they come from, and where they go, the process by which they move around, where RFID readers will be placed, and others. It is important to capture all this information in a version-controlled statement of requirements and in an architectural plan. Overall system architecture should be scalable to accommodate an expanded scope of requirements after deployment. It should also be capable of being upgraded with new, more advanced technology over time.
From this document you will develop a bill of materials. This will include the types of tags you need to track your assets, plus readers, cabling, interconnects, servers (if required), any so-called middleware your system needs to communicate with a tracking database, other internal operational systems, and IT platforms such as a customer relationship management (CRM) system.
System components can come from any number of suppliers, given the EPC’s open standards and the much greater interoperability of most components available today, While you want to avoid any vendors that would impose a locked-in proprietary solution on your business, you can gain considerable value, both short- and long-term, from single sourcing. Generally the components will integrate more easily, making deployment easier and faster. Spare parts, service, and support are also easier to manage if all come from one supplier. But make certain the supplier has the financial strength and resources to be around for at least the anticipated life span of your RFID system.
Considerations to make about core system components:
- Tag types and placement
- No universal, one-size-fits-all tags exist because of the number of variables in material, packaging, environment, and applications that can affect their selection.
- Depending on your specific requirements, different kinds of tags are available with different prices. Active, battery-powered ones cost more than passive, inductive ones, but the former can be read from a much longer range. Read/write tags cost more than read-only tags, but they can have information added to them in their transit when affixed to pallets, cartons, or items.
- In most cases, economics will guide the choice of the type of tag used (and likely whether or not RFID is deployed at pallet, case, or item levels). High-cost tags don’t make sense for low-cost items. On the other hand, they may prove valuable for cases of goods, high-cost items, or items that are shrinkage-prone.
- Placement is a related issue; just having the right application isn’t enough. The tag typically needs a consistent placement on every pallet, carton, or item in order to be correctly read in the many and varied scenarios it can travel through on its way to its final destination.
- RFID readers
- RFID readers can feature various levels of intelligence from dumb (and cheap) serial devices to smart (and more expensive) Web-enabled appliances. Each can have a host of maintenance and management requirements.
- In open intercompany RFID applications, managing devices can become even more complex as the workload needs to be shared in some consistent and dependable way across different members of the supply chain. A meta-network will be needed to manage the devices and perform the maintenance, diagnostics, resets, and so on. To save on costly technician service calls, these activities can be done remotely via electronic interaction as much as possible.
- Data management
- Once your RFID system starts generating asset-tracking data, what do you plan to do with it? This is where your IT professionals are especially needed. Business analysts can also help formulate a set of business rules to govern how RFID data must be used and who must interpret and respond to it. They should also identify procedures for passing data to higher management.
- First, determine the kinds of data that will come from your system. Then consider where it will go, specifically its receiving systems and databases. Think about the data records within each system and database that it will populate. Even small details such as field character length in a database record might need changing if the data string is too long for it.
- Hosted and cloud-based data platforms, public or private, can provide ready-to-use, pay-as-you-go options if in-house resources are unavailable for incremental use by your RFID system. Advantages of the hosted and cloud-based data management are scalability, availability, and reliability.
5. Installation, tuning, and testing
Once the feasibility test, pilot, or launch has been planned, systems must be installed in a broad array of facility scenarios, from dock doors, walkways, conveyors, trolleys, totes, and wheeled carts to forklifts, pallet bays, storage areas, and other placements.
For each scenario, antennas must be mounted to both exploit the reflective characteristics of the area and to achieve the RFID objectives at the site and scenario location. Each antenna position must be calibrated for maximum real performance, using tagged items, cartons, or pallets to verify the tuning, depending on the level of RFID required. Theoretical performance adjustments are not acceptable.
Especially challenging scenarios are those that require multiple RFID systems synchronized to work in harmony without interfering with one another or with neighboring systems. This can be done by time-based synchronization of a reader group to a common clock and careful placement of antennas. RFID systems must be synchronized to transmit at different times. A failure to properly synchronize readers that have antennas close enough to transmit to each other can result in reduced system performance because multiple simultaneous requests for transmission confuse the tags.
Testing before go-live is critical, especially to flush out RF interference issues. Given the different elements and levels of an RFID system’s operation—tags, readers, communications on the operational floor, data integration with back office databases and other systems—glitches can be expected. At the same time, tests of how the users are interacting with the system should be done (to the extent that user interaction is required). Ergonomics and human factors also need to be taken into account to ensure the system’s usability.
6. Communications and training
This last step is as important as all the others. As part of an RFID project plan, identify all functional stakeholders in its success. Note by name the individuals who represent those functions, especially those who will be using or supporting the system. As the project progresses, keep them informed of key milestones and timetables to avoid surprises.
It is critical to communicate with workers whose jobs will be impacted in some way, for better or worse, by the system. Even if the RFID system is going to make their jobs much easier, they might fear their jobs are threatened without proper communications and understanding. As a result, they could conspire (consciously or not) to sabotage and defeat the system.
Finally, before the system goes live, be certain to fully train users in how to use the system and conduct basic troubleshooting. If they don’t understand how the hardware and software work, they won’t be able to help deal with potential problems or improvement opportunities.
A Final Word
Well-conceived business cases for RFID asset-tracking systems based on conservative assumptions can often produce paybacks in 18 to 24 months. Like any industrial application, RFID requires careful planning, engineering, and execution with expert and experienced assistance.
If a company doesn’t have RFID expertise and experience in-house, it’s vital to the project’s success to find qualified outside help. The additional investment will more than pay for itself in faster deployment with fewer project and operational risks, as well as faster realization of return-on-investment.Have an Inquiry for Siemens about this article? Click Here >>